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What Is Volunteerism? A Guide to the History & Benefits

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Many people all over the world face different challenges and problems. These issues include climate-related disasters, diseases, poverty, and other problems that present major roadblocks to peace and prosperity. This is why volunteerism has played such a major role throughout history.

In this guide, we’ll take a broad look at volunteerism to explore its history and benefits. Then, we’ll review how your organization can promote volunteerism in your community and manage volunteers effectively. We’ll cover:

At its core, volunteerism is the engagement and mobilization of groups of people to support others or fight for a worthwhile cause. Volunteer programs take place worldwide, and volunteer help has improved the lives of many. Let’s take a closer look at this phenomenon!

Volunteerism definition

Volunteerism is the act of contributing free labor to conduct community service or support a nonprofit organization. It is the principle of donating time and energy towards a greater cause. Volunteers help change the lives of those in their community as a social responsibility rather than receiving a financial reward.

Volunteering is important because it enables people to help and serve others in a selfless way. When individuals take the initiative to help people in the community and support philanthropic causes, it can improve the community as a whole by creating tighter bonds and forming lasting relationships. Plus, nonprofit organizations can utilize these groups of passionate volunteers to help achieve goals in making the world a better and safer place.

History of volunteerism

Today, volunteering is recognized as a highly effective form of giving, but how did it all begin? There is a fascinating history behind how a simple act of kindness became so popular around the world.

Volunteering has been traced back to Britain in medieval times where there was an urge to aid the poor and sick.

In the 19th century, organized forms of volunteering start to pick up steam, such as the YMCA, which began in 1844 in London. The 20th century saw the birth of many more voluntary organizations committed to making a positive impact. One example is the Rotary Club, which was formed as a place for people of different backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs to come together and exchange valuable ideas, create friendships, and make a change.

The internet has provided the greatest boost yet to the popularity of volunteering. The internet allows people to communicate with others from all around the world, spreading awareness of volunteering without having any restrictions due to physical barriers. This has contributed to the growth of volunteering.

Offering virtual volunteer opportunities helps many nonprofit organizations connect with new audiences and grow their reach beyond their local communities.

Now, with the help of volunteer management software, organizations can build even more bridges to connect with their volunteers, enhancing their engagement with a variety of different tools and features to make the volunteering journey run as smoothly as possible.

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Volunteerism has a long and storied history, in both the United States and the world as a whole. Let’s take a look at some fun facts about the history of volunteerism:

  • The verb “volunteer” first originated in 1755.
  • Volunteerism in the United States stems all the way back to the Revolutionary War when civilians chipped in to support the war effort.
  • The American Red Cross, one of the most influential humanitarian organizations in the world, was founded by Clara Barton in 1881.
  • The Great Depression saw a mass mobilization of volunteers to assist the unemployed and impoverished.
  • 64.4 million American adults contributed volunteer hours in 2017.
  • According to the US Census Bureau, the top four national volunteer activities in the U.S. are fundraising or selling items to raise money (36%), preparing or distributing food (34%), collecting and distributing goods or clothing (26.5%), and mentoring youths (26%).

Hopefully, this provided you with some great knowledge on the history of volunteerism!

Types of volunteerism

There are many different types and forms of volunteerism, and anyone can be a volunteer. That’s one of the best things about volunteering; there are a variety of ways for individuals to make an impact according to their interests and skills.

As a volunteer coordinator, it’s important to learn about the different types of volunteerism so you can learn more about your pool of prospective volunteers. For instance, if you help recruit volunteers for a school, you must understand what type of volunteers you need and how to connect with them.

Let’s take a look at some of the different volunteer types to give you a better understanding of where volunteers come from and what types of skills they bring to the table.


Corporate volunteerism involves employees contributing their time and talents to assist nonprofits and other charitable organizations. Businesses often promote corporate volunteerism among their employees by offering paid time off to volunteer or volunteer grants. Volunteer grants are a type of corporate philanthropy initiative that involve businesses contributing donations to nonprofit organizations after their employees have volunteered with those organizations for a certain amount of time.


Many students are required to volunteer for a certain number of hours to fulfill requirements for their classes or clubs. In addition, many high school and college students participate in service-learning projects, which combine elements of education and volunteerism. These opportunities teach students valuable skills while allowing them to contribute their time and energy to help worthy causes.

School based

Schools often rely on volunteer support to care for their students. Many schools have parent-teacher associations (PTAs), which are alliances between parents and school staff members to complete projects that benefit students. Volunteers also contribute in other roles such as helping with after-school programs or chaperoning field trips.


These volunteers can be anyone looking to help out and contribute their time and efforts to improve their community. This can include those who volunteer at food banks, hospitals, animal shelters, nature centers, and any other community organizations.


With the rise of online volunteer opportunities, virtual volunteerism is growing in popularity. Virtual volunteerism offers a safer alternative to in-person activities during the pandemic, and it offers convenience to volunteers because they can work from home. Anyone with an internet connection can be a virtual volunteer.

Emergency relief

Emergency or disaster relief volunteers come into play after a major, devastating event, such as an earthquake or hurricane. These volunteers offer healthcare services, clean up services, and other forms of support during an emergency, such as passing out food, water, and other supplies.


Many volunteers choose to help out with major events, such as concerts, festivals, conferences, and nonprofit fundraisers. You may need a larger team for these types of events.

No matter what type of volunteering your organization offers, ensure you provide your volunteers with constant support and encouragement! Your volunteers make a major difference in your community and deserve to be recognized for their contributions.

Why is volunteerism important?

Volunteers offer crucial support during times of crisis and times of peace. Certain organizations, such as many nonprofits, wouldn’t be able to remain in operation without the help of volunteers. Plus, volunteer time is incredibly valuable—the estimated value of each volunteer hour contributed in the United States is $28.54!

Volunteerism doesn’t just offer benefits to nonprofits and other community organizations. It also benefits volunteers themselves. Volunteering is linked to improved mental and physical health outcomes. It can also offer other benefits like:

  • Strengthening communities after a crisis. As a volunteer manager, you know the importance of building a better community with the help of your volunteers! Your volunteers are dedicated to offering their time and skills to support your organization, even during crises. Volunteering after a crisis can help bring the community together and lend a helping hand to those who need it most. This can help build a stronger, more resilient community in the long run.
  • Teaching volunteers valuable life skills. Volunteering allows participants to gain new skills and knowledge in areas that interest them most. They can network with new people and practice important skills that can be helpful in the workplace. Volunteers can develop leadership skills, project planning skills, and task management skills. Plus, volunteer positions look great on volunteers’ resumes and will help them prepare for any future opportunities.

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  • Gain new knowledge. Your volunteer programs can create opportunities to bring like-minded people together and learn from those who come from different walks of life. This is an excellent way to expand your volunteers’ understanding of others who come from diverse backgrounds. It also helps you, as a volunteer manager, to learn along the way as well!
  • Boost donations. Offering an effective volunteer program where your volunteers are motivated, happy, and engaged can help you boost donations and get volunteers more involved in your nonprofit’s mission. When volunteers have a great experience, they’ll be much more likely to contribute monetary donations alongside the gift of their time and energy.

How to incentivize volunteerism

Offering incentives is a great way to increase morale and participation. Incentives can go a long way in making your volunteers feel encouraged to continue volunteering with your organization.

If you’re a volunteer coordinator or nonprofit professional looking for volunteers to help support your mission, there are a few simple things you can do to inspire greater volunteerism in your community.  Let’s take a look at a few:
How to Incentivize Volunteerism

  • Make it easy for volunteers to find your opportunities and register. Get your opportunities in front of the right audience with a strong marketing strategy. Use your volunteer management system to offer a streamlined sign-up process for new volunteers.
  • Offer tangible benefits. Promote the things that set your volunteer program apart, such as the benefits you offer participants. These benefits might include valuable training opportunities, leadership development, social/networking events, or free merchandise, such as t-shirts.
  • Make your volunteer program inclusive. Reduce volunteers’ barriers to participation by making your opportunities as inclusive as possible. Prioritize the accessibility of your in-person and virtual events and reach out to volunteers to ask how you can help make your opportunities more accessible and convenient.
  • Say thank you often. Let volunteers know how much you appreciate their support by sending frequent thank you emails and letters. Check out this guide to volunteer appreciation tips for more ideas.

These are all effective ways to make your volunteers feel special! From offering a seamless registration process to giving tangible incentives and expressing appreciation for your volunteers’ hard work, there are plenty of ways to ensure your volunteers feel content and satisfied.

In conclusion

Now that you’ve explored what volunteerism is, its history, the different types of volunteerism, and why it’s important, it’s time to start brainstorming how you can provide an excellent experience for your volunteers that they will remember for a lifetime! Remember, using an efficient volunteer management solution is the best way to continue promoting volunteerism and managing volunteers effectively. These platforms help grow your reach, increase volunteer retention, and even help you transform volunteers into donors using inspiring outreach campaigns.

When your volunteers enjoy their time volunteering with your organization, they’ll want to continue putting their best foot forward and donating their time. This is why it’s essential to plan out your volunteer program effectively and offer the type of experience your supporters are looking for. Good luck!

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  • Chisom Austine

    Very Concise and highly educational content. Thank you.

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